A new Perspective After 37 Years

In ninth grade, my dad began handing me books to read, to sharpen the mind of the would-be writer. I’d sit in the Living Room, normally reserved for company, put on an album, slip on the headphones, and sit in the easy chair with a paperback. That’s how I first read Thomas Wolfe and J.D. Salinger among others. This is the first time he gave me The Grapes of Wrath, which I deferred reading for nearly four decades. I appreciated the effort and wish we’d actually taken the time to talk about these works.

In tenth grade, my English teacher was John F.X. Tobin a man who seemed to mumble his way through the lessons. I didn’t necessarily get along well with him and recall disliking just about every book we were forced to read in that class. Still, between what my dad had me read and the stuff Mr. Tobin shoved down our throats, I began to appreciate other writers and styles. By the end of tenth grade, I began turning around my grades and academic outlook.

Still, looking back, I have visceral negative reactions to many of the books we read from Ethan Fromme to Old Man and the Sea to My Antonia.

Flash forward 37 years to this past week. I’m zipping through my required reading for the online class and among the books is Willa Cather’s tale of life in Nebraska. I opened My Antonia with trepidation, those dark feelings still lingering in my memory.

Amazing what happens when you mature and grow up. The book caught me by surprise and I fairly devoured it. Cather’s depiction of the immigrant settling of those bleak lands and the relationship between Jim and Antonia is compelling stuff. I couldn’t believe how much I enjoyed the book.

Will I feel the same way with other books from that period? Maybe. Still, my loathing for Catcher in the Rye and Old Man and the Sea are so strong that someone may have to put a gun to my head before I try them again. I do recognize, though, that as a future teacher, I will need to do a solid job of explaining why these books are being read today and what sets them apart from everything else published. The pre-teaching may become the most important aspect of any unit and that’s an important lesson to learn now.

7 comments

  • Laurie Rozakis

    Catcher and Old Man and the Sea aren’t particularly well written, which has nothing to do with their popularity in classrooms. Their enduring appeal is a direct result of their “teachability.”
    Catcher is laughably easy to teach because nearly all teenagers identify with Holden’s inability to stomach what he perceives as “phoniness” and so they embrace the book. Kids also adore the scene with Maurice the pimp and Sunny the prostitute. (Smut in the classroom! Gee whiz!) Clever teachers get a kick out of the snide irony: Holden is a rich, pampered kid who decries what he embraces, such as the pride he takes in his fancy-schmancy suitcases as he mocks the cheap ones the nuns have. It’s easy to decry phoniness when daddy’s footing the bill for private schools and you’re living in a spread on the Upper East Side.
    Old Man and the Sea has a simple style and easy words, so it’s cake in the classroom (ditto on Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and The Red Pony.) So what if we’ve rejected Papa’s Code? No one cares.
    The tough ones are Death of a Salesman, which no one under age fifty can appreciate and no one over fifty can read without sobbing. Ethan Frome has the same problem: the self-sacrifice flies over the kids’ heads while it wallops seasoned teachers in the gut.
    Try Kafka’s Metamorphosis, which is a treat to read and to teach. It’s also got all those juicy symbols and motifs that play well on state assessments.

  • You know, one of the ways to challenge the kids if you’re doing a book you don’t like is to be honest about it. Tell them that you didn’t like the book, and see if you can get any of them to convince you otherwise.

    I liked Catcher, but I seem to be one of the few science-fiction writers who did.

  • Jen in Oz

    When I was in Teacher’s College, we had a task for one semester, or maybe one year: to READ. Didn’t matter what we read, whether we’d read it before or not, but we had to write a page or two about it in a journal and at the end of the semester (or year?) we got marked based on the total number of pages we had read. I took the opportunity to go back and read lots of old favourites and developed a few new favourites at that time. Still haven’t read Catcher in the Rye or Of Mice and Men or many Charles Dickens or Bronte Sisters books that are still taught; I have read NONE (except Romeo and Juliet) of my daughter’s Year 11 texts this year (yet, though I may have to help her out with understanding some of them as exam time approaches).

    Oh, and to Laurie Rozakis – I HATED Metamorphosis, with a passion I still feel, when I read it in year 12, and will probably avoid anything by Kafka for the rest of my life as a result!
    Jen

  • Laurie Rozakis

    Not to be snippy, but why are you bragging about not having read the canon? You sound proud of your ignorance and you went to Teacher’s College, for goodness’ sake. And why aren’t you taking the time now to catch up on what you missed? At least try Kafka again, as you were 17 or 18 when you tried it and you must be decades older if you have a daughter in 11th grade. I REALLY hope you’re not a teacher.

  • Jen in Oz

    Sorry, Laurie, I wasn’t bragging… after all we had plenty of Australian literature that we were required to read during my time in College, to which I’m guessing you haven’t been exposed. And no, I’m not a teacher, although I did qualify. After getting a job in admin during my last year of study, I stuck with that because the idea of walking into a class of Year 9s scared me silly. (And it turns out that for some very odd reason, the fact that I got my degree on the other side of the country means that to register here in Melbourne would cost me a lot extra. When I wasn’t working, that extra cost made it prohibitive for me to consider even registering unless I had had a definite job-offer, which I never did. Happy to stay in office admin for the foreseeable future, frankly!)
    My personal preferences for reading tend toward fantasy, science fiction and biography, which is my excuse for still not having read what you refer to as the canon.
    I’ll probably be reading The Wife of Martin Guerre sometime in the next couple of weeks though (yes it’s on my daughter’s booklist).

  • Deb

    I agree with Jen on Metamorphosis, I hated it and as a result won’t go near any Kafka ever again. Though I have to admit that at the same time I hated Crime and Punishment and could have been scared away from Russian lit, but recently read War and Peace and loved it. I guess it’s maturity.

  • Jason Simpson

    I remember reading Hemingway’s Hills Like White Elephants after Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities. Hemingway’s minimalism was a refreshing pallet cleanser after Dickens’s detailed verbosity.

    Jason Simpson
    long-time fan

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